– By J.W. Fox –
Kim Stanley Robinson is a perfect example of an author who uses fiction as a means of articulating his political opinions. Look no further than his latest novel,New York 2140. Sadly, the novel is a failure both as a work of fiction and political commentary.
The best way to describe it is “preachy and self-indulgent.” Robinson thinly veils 600 pages of political commentary with several mediocre interlinked stories. The sluggish, boring read failed to keep my attention after 260 pages (44 percent mark). Usually I can suck it up and finish a mediocre novel, but every so often I get stuck in one that is just too frustrating to finish.
As you probably guessed, the stories takes place in New York City in 2140 after global warming has raised sea levels fifty feet. The city resembles Venice, a city of canals and waterways. Many still live in the finance capital, converting it into a new kind of metropolis. There are six or seven point of view characters, including a hedge fund manager and a reality TV star. The stories are very loosely connected to one apartment building in Manhattan, with either the characters living there or events taking place near it.
There is a treasure hunt involving a famous 19th century shipwreck in the East River, the disappearance of two tenants from the building, a bizarre hiccup in the Wall Street equity markets, a bid from an unknown party to buy the building, and a reality TV star that helps transport animals from dying habitats. The stories touch on the challenges the city faces from climate change and on the shadowy and unscrupulous practices utilized in the financial system.
Despite being marketed as a work of genre fiction, it is written in the style of a political blog post. Robinson’s views are transparent from the start. There are chapters that are nothing more than the author’s descriptions and opinion on his 2140, mainly blaming the catastrophes on our mistakes in the 21st century.
Our shortsightedness on climate change led to the destructive rise of sea levels. The lack of regulation and oversight of the financial markets leads to all sorts of exploitation and corruption. Robinson goes so far as to turn the name of the socialist economist Piketty into a verb (“we pikettied them”). For those ideologically aligned with Robinson, this might be amusing. For those who do not have strong opinions, it is neither interesting nor persuasive.
These types of futuristic allegories do not have the same appeal they once had. Preachy social commentary used to have a pretty important place in science fiction but that time has long passed. At the very least, authors should tell a fascinating story rather than give a naked op-ed.
On to the stories…
There are at least 6 POV characters and an attempt to give the city a personality of its own. Only Robinson wasn’t able to breathe much life into them. Their individual stories are interesting at times but are diluted. Whatever momentum one builds up is thwarted with the next POV shift or the infodump chapters. The majority of the characters are not particularly well developed after 260 pages. They have backstories and certain attitudes, all of which are told to the reader instead of shown.
Some of the characters felt more like stereotypes. The Wall Street traders are simple-minded, and it times speak more like laymen. That problem is pervasive. The lawyers do not speak like lawyers. The notable exception is the reality TV star, Amelia. The narcissistic airhead resembles a number of stars you’d find on Bravo. Her effort to transport polar bears from the north pole to the south pole is amusing in that it is horribly planned and executed.
Also, the excessive use of epigraphs was completely unnecessary. There are three or four quotes, poems, and/or song lyrics at the front of each chapter. If a new author submitted a manuscript with such basic stylistic issues to a publisher, it would be quickly rejected. But when your name is Kim Stanley Robinson…
From reading reviews and monitoring sales, it is fair to say sci-fi readers are not interested in being lectured to by authors. Nearly all science fiction contains some social commentary but problems arise when it is transparent and heavy-handed. That is the fatal flaw of New York 2140.
The sci-fi elites (award committees, big-name authors, professional reviewers and editors, etc.) do not seem as bothered with hamfisted social commentary. Accusations of aloofness and groupthink are becoming louder, including a pathetic coup attempt on the Hugos by the Sad Puppies.
Robinson specifically is on a pretty long cold streak. Reader reviews of his last three novels have been pretty rough. As of the writing of this review (New York 2140 currently sits at a 3.64 rating on Goodreads, Aurora at 3.73, and 2312 at a horrific 3.43).
I wish I could say something nice about the novel or recommend it to a certain readership but it isn’t easy. Unless you are already a hardcore Robinson fan and love his style of social science fiction, you are not going to enjoy this novel.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.